Singer-songwriter Cohn to perform at library
FARMINGTON — When a nationally touring musician or band releases a new disc, that act typically is designed to generate a lot of momentum in the form of radio airplay, sales and audience response over the six to 12 months that follow.
Having released nine albums or EPs over the course of her career before her “Heartstrings Touching Ground” came out in early 2015, singer-songwriter Jill Cohn certainly was familiar with that pattern. Now, more than ever, new music doesn’t seem to have much of a shelf life, and if an artist wants to make an impact with a new disc, he or she better figure out a way to get people to listen to it quickly.
Funny thing is, that hasn’t been Cohn’s experience with “Heartstrings Touching Ground” at all. In spite of the fact that the disc spent 24 weeks on the Americana charts upon its release last year, it has turned into what she likes to call a “slow grower” — a piece of work that took its time finding its targeted audience and even a level of comfort with the artist who produced it.
“It’s taken me a while to grow into performing the songs,” Cohn said during a telephone conversation last week from Colorado, where she was performing several shows before heading here for a performance at the Farmington Public Library this weekend. That performance will conclude the second season of the Cottonwood Concert Series.
The album was the most ambitious of Cohn’s career and was produced by Malcolm Burn, best known for his work with the likes of Emmylou Harris, John Mellencamp, Patty Griffin and Blue Rodeo. Cohn was so overwhelmed by the chance to work with a producer of Burn’s profile that she said she needed some time to process that experience and separate it from the resulting product.
So she went back to basics, touring the country and performing solo acoustic versions of the songs featured on “Heartstrings Touching Ground,” many of which featured accompaniment by drummer Manuel Quintana and Burn himself on guitar, bass and piano. Even that was a learning process, she said.
“When I first got out with the new material, I was really struggling to find my footing with it,” she said. “A lot of what we did in the studio was maybe better than what I could have done live. So I had to relearn how to do those (songs) live.”
From those unsteady beginnings, Cohn said good things developed. The benefits of having worked with Burn became apparent in other, surprising ways, she said.
“One of the biggest things that experience gave me was learning to trust myself,” she said. “That’s something I’ve lacked my whole career, if not my whole life. I learned to follow my instincts and not get in the way of that.”
Realizing that has changed Cohn as a performer, she said.
“It has given me that new energy,” she said.
Cohn released four full albums or EPs between 2011 and 2015, with “Heartstrings Touching Ground” representing the last of those. So the fact that she hasn’t gone into the studio since then represents somewhat of a break in habit.
But her decision to continue to focus on that most recent material — and give it room to breathe, in a sense — has allowed her audience to get to know those songs well.
“I see a lot of people coming back to shows who have purchased the album,” she said. “When you put out a record, you’re always hoping it will do well and connect with people. But each record has its own energy. This was definitely an ambitious record for me, and I always had wanted to work with Malcolm. ... but I was so excited about the experience that, by the time it was over, I had no ambition other than to get it out to as many people as I could. It’s been cool to watch that happen. The record finally is starting to take on its own life and energy. To me, it still feels really fresh, and I think there’s a lot of life left in those songs for me.”
One reason for that freshness may be the subject matter. Cohn explores such issues as immigration (“Better Life”) and the growing chasm between the haves and have-nots (“Yellow Rose”) on the album, both of which have been front and center in the national consciousness for much of the last year because of the presidential campaign. Those tunes give the recording an urgency that makes it more relevant now than when it was released.
“It’s funny how that happened,” Cohn said. “That was not my intention. It was very strange, but it’s given me a lot of purpose and life in this record.”
Cohn is especially pleased to see “Better Life” stir some discussion.
“I’m glad it’s become part of the dialogue with immigration,” she said. “Even though it’s a political issue, it’s been an issue for the economy for a long time. We’re a nation of immigrants. But it’s really been in our faces this year because of it being an election year. I think it’s wild that my song is part of that dialogue.”
This isn’t the first time that Cohn has seen one of her albums have a delayed impact. She said the same thing happened with her 2000 disc “The Absence of Moving.”
“I want to say that might have been almost a four-year cycle,” she said. “In fact, I’m still playing songs from it today. Those songs still connect with me. But other albums have a pretty short shelf life.”
Even as “Heartstrings Touching Ground” traveled its unusual arc, Cohn was undergoing a major life change. The breakup of a seven-year relationship led her to conclude it was time for her to leave her longtime home of Seattle, and she relocated to Colorado. Since the Southwest makes up the heart of her normal touring territory, the move made a lot of sense, she said, but that was something she realized only after her family talked her into it.
“I don’t want to make it sound like my parents were trying to get rid of me,” she said, laughing. “But they were able to help me see the wisdom of it.”
Cohn said she’s been pleased with the move, enjoying the more laid-back environment and the proximity to her touring base. She’s already spent two weeks playing in and around Albuquerque this year and will return for more performances later this fall.
“It’s been a blessing, being able to play all these little towns in Colorado and in Denver,” she said. “And so many people from the West Coast have moved here. It’s so expensive there, and the lower cost of living helps. It’s also allowed me to concentrate a lot more on my music this year.”
The change in surroundings has sparked her creativity, Cohn said.
“It really has,” she said. “I was working on some new songs earlier this week, possibly for my next record. Not having to drive as much as before, it’s left me with more creative time on my hands. And the time I do spend driving is different, because on the West Coast, it’s all farm land, forest or ocean. Here, I can drive a hundred miles and see all kinds of different landscapes, and I find that inspiring.”
Even though she is compiling material for a new album, getting back into the studio is not a priority for her yet. Cohn said she plans to make a video for “Better Life” first, and she has other projects in mind for other songs on the album. She doubts she’ll begin working on a new disc before next summer.
“I’m going through a huge life transition,” she said. “But I don’t want to write a huge breakup album. I don’t want to play that every night. So I’m giving myself some distance from that experience. I’d like to have a more positive outlook when I start recording again — although there probably will be some breakup songs on there.”
Mike Easterling is the A&E editor of The Daily Times. He can be reached at 505-564-4610.
If you go
What: The Cottonwood Concert Series featuring singer-songwriter Jill Cohn
When and where: 3:30 p.m. in the rotunda and 6 p.m. in the north amphitheater beneath the cottonwoods at the Farmington Public Library, 2101 Farmington Ave. In case of inclement weather, the late show will be moved into the rotunda
For more information: Call 505-599-1260 or visit infoway.org.